Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Best served cold...

Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris' website has the following quote describing this book:

"The place is St Oswald's, an old and long-established boys' grammar school in the north of England. A new year has just begun, and for the staff and boys of the School, a wind of unwelcome change is blowing. Suits, paperwork and Information Technology rule the world; and Roy Straitley, Latin master, eccentric, and veteran of St Oswald's, is finally – reluctantly – contemplating retirement. But beneath the little rivalries, petty disputes and everyday crises of the School, a darker undercurrent stirs. And a bitter grudge, hidden and carefully nurtured for fifteen years, is about to erupt.

"Who is "Mole," the mysterious insider, whose cruel practical jokes are gradually escalating …? And how can an old and half-forgotten scandal become the stone that brings down a giant?"

Intriguing, isn't it? That's because Joanne Harris has always had a very good knack for telling a compelling story. Together with this, Harris knows how to build characters strongly, and use them to drive the story rather than the other way around. In order to do this, Joanne takes a first person voice and speaks to the readers through the characters. While this is easy to do when you're writing through the eyes of only one character, it is more difficult when doing the same through two or more persons. One way is to make the "voices" so distinctive that it is impossible to mix them up. In this book, Harris took the easier method of indicating the character speaking at the start of each chapter heading. Mind you, her method of indication was more subtle than naming the person – Harris instead used a symbol as a code – in this case, a drawing of a pawn (as in the game of chess) – where the white one was the protagonist and the black one was the antagonist.

There is one obvious advantage to using two first-person narratives, and that is the writer can use one character to describe the physical aspects of the other. This is in lieu of third-person descriptions, which are often boring and usually distract from the characters and progress of the story. Harris does this so well that if Roy Straitley was a real person, you could pick him out of a crowd. She is less successful with her antagonist, but this was because she needed to keep as much of an air of mystery about the "Mole" as was humanly possible – since some of the mystery behind this 'trouble-maker' is even withheld from the readers until near the end of the book.

By the way, I apologize for sounding so elusive. While previous novels by Harris have concentrated on conflicts that were mostly out in the open, this book borders on being a mystery novel. While the antagonist speaks directly to the reader, and from early on in the book, lays out the plan for St. Oswald's destruction as it occurs, the truth behind the problems is kept from the other characters while very little is kept from the reader. Of course, with a good mystery, there are always things that one guesses at one point or another; only to find out we were wrong as the action progresses, and this is no exception.

With all this praise, I did have a few minor niggles with this book. Firstly, the use of the black and white pawns to indicate the narrator wasn't obvious, and the reader might not succeed in distinguishing between them. Another small other problem was that there are occasional inserts of untranslated Latin, which readers might not understand. Still, this isn't enough to reduce the enjoyment of this book, and in fact, the Latin works well with the level of language that she uses. Harris writes with a very simple but sophisticated style that isn't overly flowery or poetic, but also isn't overly simplistic either. In other words, she doesn't write 'down' to her readers but she also doesn't write over their heads. This is a fine line to tread, but has been one she has repeatedly achieved with aplomb in all her books, and is something I have always admired.

In sum, this book is arguably Joanna Harris's best novel yet, and my personal favorite. She has a very compelling story that while not being a true mystery novel, has enough twists to make any mystery genre lover very happy. The characters are strongly written and develop within the action of the book in a natural and believable fashion. The language she uses is perfectly balanced, making this a very well rounded tale indeed. This book deserves a full five stars out of five, and comes highly recommended.


"Gentlemen and Players" by Joanne Harris is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo (eBook formats), iTunes as an iBook or Audiobook, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a version of my review that appears on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady) and previously appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Last Squeeze is the Sweetest

Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris

This is the story of Framboise - no, not a bottle of raspberry liqueur (thank heavens), but rather a woman by that name from a farm on the river Loire in the French village of Les Laveuses. This is partially the story of Framboise's troubled childhood with her brother (named Casis), sister (Reine-Claude) and especially her unwell and widowed mother (who was, of course, an amazing cook) during WWII and Nazi occupied France. It is also the story of her no less troubling old age - accounted from the time she returns to the village in her 'retirement', in order to open a creperie. She tries to avoid painfully dredging up her past by using a different name. However, mysteries and provincial villages never mix. This is especially true when a curious stranger serves delicious food (despite her not seeming terribly strange). They are bound to sniff out her secrets and inhale them deeply, much as the pungent release of the scent from an orange that has just had a thumb pressed into is juicy flesh.

This is another culinary fiction book by Harris, which completed her "food trilogy" which started with
Chocolat continued with Blackberry Wine. Usually, a literary trilogy means three books telling different parts of one long story - most likely with the same people or at least the same key families or personalities. While both Chocolat and Blackberry Wine focused on the same town, with many similar people, the main characters of those two books were both outsiders to the area. Here we have not only a new village but also the protagonist is a native born villager who returns to her old home after many years. As far as that's concerned, while you won't feel terribly cheated by Blackberry Wine having some of the same characters as Chocolat, it does seem strange to have a third story in a trilogy that completely ignores all the players from the first two books. Still, this new cast is enjoyable enough so you won't hold this against Harris or this novel.

In addition, of the three books in the trilogy, this story is by far the most complex. Harris carefully balances together both the past and the present in almost equal measures, like a perfect recipe. In Five Quarters, however, the past is not just there for insight into the characters. The past in this book unfolds along with the present in an almost parallel period. In this way, we get to know Framboise as both a girl and an old woman, all at the same time.

None of this means that there are no similarities between Five Quarters and the first two books. There are parallels that point to this being the third book in this trilogy. For instance, in Chocolat, Vianne opens a Chocolate Shop, and in Five Quarters, we have Framboise opening a creperie, with both shops playing important roles. In Blackberry Wine, there is the deception by Marise d'Api (Jay's neighbor) regarding both her daughter's ailment and her husband's life and death. In Five Quarters, Framboise's disguise and different name give her a 'new' past so those who might remember the family, will hopefully, not recognize her.

There is also the food aspect. Blackberry Wine deals less in the culinary and more in growing of edible items and preserving them, particularly wine. Chocolat deals mostly with the preparation and consumption of chocolate. However, Five Quarters combines all of these - growing fruits and vegetables, preserving foods for present and future use, and preparing and consuming the grown, bought and preserved products in gourmet dishes. In this - and essentially when thinking about a "food trilogy," we can easily believe that Five Quarters is certainly the culminating story, although it is a bit of a stretch. 

In this, as in the previous two novels, Harris has a writing style that feels like the writer is chatting with you. It's almost as if an old friend has come to visit and has begun to tell you a slice of their life, in a nostalgic manner. Yet, it is more artistic than that. While it isn't like someone reading floral poetry, it's more like hearing a seasoned actor read a charming children's book - the best words to describe her writing would be comforting and enticing. However, sometimes this informality also tends to being somewhat inconsistent in places, as if the speaker was too tired to use all their creativity. Thankfully, the instances of these passages are very few.

Furthermore, while Five Quarters is by far more plot-orientated than either Chocolat or Blackberry Wine, Harris hasn't forgotten how important well-rounded characters are to a good novel. Moreover, she exceeded both Chocolat and Blackberry Wine with her shaping of her characters with her prose in this book, making them truly come alive for the readers. When thinking back over these three books, despite having seen the movie Chocolat (which can ruin one's ability to
objectively picture the written characters), you might find you can visualize the people in Five Quarters far easier than in the other two books. Moreover, Harris has a unique knack for getting her readers to empathize with her characters, even when they are unsympathetic.

In light of all this, Joanne Harris has given us three very enjoyable reads, despite some minor niggles. To my mind, Five Quarters is the best of these three (although not my favorite Joanne Harris book), with the most well rounded and developed characters, the most involved but comprehensible plot and the most charmingly delicious descriptions of culinary designs, yet. In short, I highly recommend this book and give it a rating of four and a half stars out of five! 

"Five Quarters of the Orange" by Joanne Harris is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo (eReader formats), as an iBook or Audiobook from iTunes, in print from The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a revised version of my review that appears on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady) and previously appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Wine Tells All

Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris

Jay Mackintosh is a writer whose first hit novel "Jackapple Joe" revolved around a man he met as a boy in the late 70s in Pog Hill an ex-mining town in England. It's now 1999, however, and he hasn't written anything serious since - only junk novels under an assumed name. Suddenly, inspiration catches him and he impulsively buys a house in some no-where town in France, determined to get back his muse.

To be honest, I must confess my mixed first impressions of this book. It begins with the first chapter told from the point of view of a bottle of wine - a Fleurie, 1962 to be precise. This made me assume this book was supposed to be totally from this viewpoint, but actually, this was just a ruse for the author to write in a third person omnipresent voice. As clever as this may seem, we should remember we are not bottles of wine. You will also notice that the wines are unable to get into the minds and/or bodies of anyone besides the protagonist (Jay), except after someone had consumed some of the bottle's contents. Therefore, it struck me as being a mechanic that was trying too hard to be clever. Luckily, Ms Harris must have realized this and only seldom came back to the bottles speaking for themselves.

This is not a sequel to Chocolat, however it is part of her trilogy of novels set in the French town of Lansquenet, and therefore has peppered it with many - if not all - of the minor characters from her previous novel. She even makes a passing reference to the story behind Chocolat, but neither Vianne Rocher nor her daughter Anouk actually appear in this story. The reader may feel cheated by this, since Harris has such a wonderful knack of developing characters - even the minor ones. Yet, since we already know these characters from Chocolat, they feel almost trivialized here, and Harris doesn't do much to make them as well rounded as she could. Therefore, if you have not read Chocolat, you may find the characters here to be flat and one-dimensional.

Those who do know the story of Chocolat will recall the estranged grandmother. In this story, we find another case of this estrangement. Here, a granddaughter doesn't meet her grandmother the woman's daughter-in-law is afraid that her mother-in-law might try to take the child from her. While in Chocolat this conflict comes to a satisfactory solution, here this remains a loose end, which I found to be dissatisfying.

For instance, Harris likes to use flashbacks extensively in her novels, while confining them to their own chapters. These flashbacks give us valuable insights into the characters as they are in the present day of the story, thereby eliminating tedious narration. Unfortunately, all of the flashbacks in this book have to do with only Jay Mackintosh's past, and so we find ourselves with only one fully rounded character where most of the rest are two-dimensional at best.

Still, we seem to get enough of the minor characters' flavor so as not to deprive us totally of their import in this story. For instance, rumors and conversations around Jay's neighbor, Marise d'Api (the woman who is keeping her daughter from her mother-in-law), give us enough background to allow us to come to our own prejudices about her, and then recant (at least some of) them as we get to know her. Harris is a master of this push-and-pull with the reader - leading you in one direction through conjecture, and then letting you completely change your mind once you know the truth.

Regarding the plot, Harris seems to know how to get one wrapped up in the story as well as with the characters, as we become involved in Jay's life on several different levels. On one level, we have his motivation to return to being a "real writer" and regain his muse. On another level, we have his attachment to the man who inspired his first novel - Jackapple Joe - and how Joe continues to be part of his life despite Jay's move across the channel. Yet another level is his relationship with the town and its inhabitants versus his cutting himself off from his previous girlfriend in London and his sham of a life there. There are even more levels than this, but it is Harris' simplicity of language mixed with a good deal of charm and wit that keeps all of these different levels in play without ever losing the reader's interest or complicating things beyond understanding.

Furthermore, Harris imbues her stories with a sense of magical realism, to explain the unexplained things that happen to people. More importantly, if we examine these events too closely, they will lose their feeling of being extraordinary. So she works these into her character's lives and lets them push her story along. In this book, she uses the spirit of Jackapple Joe to embody the exceptional things that happen to Jay - both in his real-life actions and in his "haunting" (if you will) of Jay in France. As strange as that may seem, she always succeeds using these elements without ever allowing her readers to give up and say, "I just don't buy it."

Overall, while there are some problems with this book, I would still recommend it, but give it only three out of five stars. Harris gives us compelling characters and an interesting story line mixed with a touch of her famous "fairy dust." This is a good easy read, which has short enough chapters to allow one to pick up at will, without feeling as if you're missing or will lose something in the interim, making it a perfect book for summer holiday reading. 

"Blackberry Wine" by Joanne Harris is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo (for other eBook reader formats), as an iBook or Audiobook from iTunes, in print from The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a revised version of my review on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady), which previously appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Friday, February 20, 2015

A Plot on a Plot of Land

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck

When it comes to historical fiction, the years before, during and after World War II have become some of the most popular to write about, mostly because of the opportunity they give the writer to evoke strong emotions in their readers. Yet, with all the drama that this era affords, far too often these books seem to meld into one another. How many times can we read about going off to war, the broken who returned or even the enormous scope of the many horrors of the war itself?

Erpenbeck, however, gives us a completely different point of view. As expected, the action of Visitation starts from the early 1930s, and she continues her tale to cover the following 50-60 years, at the least. The exact timeline here isn't fully evident, as it is never precisely noted. However, one can assume quite a bit through the hints that Erpenbeck gives us. For example, early in the book she notes how one character doesn't join in conversations about things such as the boxing match when the German Schmeling took the world heavy weight title from the American Joe Lewis (which happened in 1930).

With this tiny detail, one can already see how special this novel is. Erpenbeck further enhances this by concentrating her story on a plot of land in Germany's Brandenburg hills, along with the home built on it, the people who visit there and most importantly, the gardener who took care of it for so many years. In this way, Erpenbeck floats on the edges of history, while only alluding to events that took place far from this idyllic location, as her story unfurls. Through this, the home and its various inhabitants evolve and change, but the gardener is always there as their witness and implementer. Erpenbeck does all this with a particularly poignant and unique style, repeating snippets of phrases - both poetic and mundane - for effect and emphasis.

With so many years to cover, one might think that this is a sweeping epic, with hundreds or even thousands of pages of prose. On the contrary, the genius of this book is that it is a mere 150 pages, with every one of them filled with pure delight. I cannot recommend this book more highly, and at the same time, give the utmost praise to the translator Susan Bernofsky for making the English version of this book such an amazing work of art.

 "Visitation" by Jenny Erpenbeck published by New Directions Paperback, released September 30, 2010 (originally 2008) is available on Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. This review was first published (but no longer appears) on the website Daily Two Cents.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Other Side of a Journey

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

Readers of Joyce's debut novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry will know Queenie Hennessy, or at least know of her. She is the woman Harold Fry worked with, who is dying of cancer. When Harold Fry gets the letter telling him of this, he decides to walk the length of England to see her one last time. In this novel, as Queenie awaits his arrival (along with many of the other patients in the hospice), it's time to tell her story.

First, let's get something completely clear; this is not a sequel to Harold Fry. Yes, if you haven't read Harold Fry, there are things in this story that might not affect you as much, but I'm betting you'll still enjoy it. Despite this, it would probably be to your advantage to read Harold Fry before you read this novel. You see, Queenie Hennessy's story takes place parallel to Harold's story. In essence, they are both the same story - just two different versions, from two different viewpoints. It's sort of like looking at two sides of a coin, and now that we have both of them, the object is finally three-dimensional. This isn't to say that either book is incomplete, because they certainly aren’t. In other words, these two books complement each other, flawlessly. I'd be willing to bet if Joyce had thought about writing Queenie's story when she was writing Harold Fry, she might have ended up publishing them both at the same time - probably as one large volume.

As I noted when I reviewed her digital short story A Faraway Smell of Lemon, after adoring Harold Fry and idolizing Perfect, I am a confessed Rachel Joyce addict, and this novel has only increased my desire for more. This is because with this story, we find just how versatile Joyce is. Harold's story was his thoughts about his life as he walked across the country, mixed with the experiences he has along the way, written in third person. On the other hand, Queenie's first person account is in the form of a (very long) letter to Harold Fry, along with accounts of the people around her at the hospice. This letter is Queenie's attempt to confess all the things she never told Harold - her love for him, her life after she left, and even her relationship with his son.

As ordinary as this may sound, Joyce does this with such grace and tenderness you cannot help but believe she loves Queenie just as much as Queenie loved Harold. Joyce also inserts brief passages that are wildly fantastical, obviously reflecting the influence of the pain-killing drugs that Queenie is taking. What is most incredible about this book is how Joyce combines these two things - the illness and Queenie's "confession" with such delicately evocative, yet simple prose. The writing here is so poignant and heartfelt, yet so effortlessly clear that I swear, there were times when I literally kissed the cover of the book before putting it down (seriously). In fact, this lovingly written book was such an amazing read that I'm hugely tempted to go back and read them both again. However, this time, I would read them in parallel, just like their stories - switching between Harold Fry and Queenie Hennessy.

Just like with Joyce's novel Perfect, once again I wracked my brain to find some fault in this book, and once again, I am at a loss. The only exception is (once again), I wish I had read this sooner, since then it would have appeared on my list of favorite 2014 books. With her third novel, Rachel Joyce has cemented herself as a true literary talent, and I can only nod in agreement with the Daily Telegraph quote on the cover that says, "If only there were more novelists like Rachel Joyce." I can hardly wait to read what she gives us next. I can't give it less than a full five stars out of five and highly recommend it.

"The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy" by Rachel Joyce published by Doubleday (Transworld Publishers Ltd), released October 2014 is available on Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook or audiobook from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), nor or used from Alibis or from an IndieBound store near you.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Distinguished Thing

Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn

London, the summer of 1936, and things seemed to be changing at an alarming rate - not always for the better. One of the less pleasant things happening was the discovery of two women, strangled by the murderer they called the "Tie-Pin Killer" due to his gruesome skewering of their tongues. When the up-and-coming actress Nina Land accidentally foils a third attempt, allowing for the escape of his intended victim while getting a look at his face, London suddenly becomes a very dangerous place for these two women.

Who doesn't like a good murder mystery? One that takes place in London and involving the theater just makes it even more interesting. Author Anthony Quinn heightens this fascination by including more than just the murder and the theater, with several other unsavory elements to the story. We have the homosexual theater critic, Jimmy Erskine and his (straight) secretary Tom, together with Nina Land and her married lover, the portrait painter Stephen Wyley as well as the intended victim, Madeline Farewell, a woman (ironically) forced into prostitution after losing her job when she repelled the sexual advances of her boss. Into all this, Quinn adds the complications of homosexuality being illegal and the Black Shirts attempting to align Britain with Hitler's vision for Germany.

All that sounds like some exciting stuff and Quinn brings it all together nicely. He does this by constantly switching the focus between his major characters, and weaving the plot through their various (and sometimes overly coincidental) encounters with each other. Yet each character has a part to play in this story, and Quinn makes them both believable and sympathetic. In addition, he aptly uses his lovingly drawn minor characters to the proper, measured amounts to push the story forward without distracting from his protagonists. This he does this with easy-flowing prose with just enough inclusions of artfully wry passages and mid-century colloquialisms to help the reader feel the proper atmosphere and era. Furthermore, when he comes to the climax, you may feel your adrenalin levels rising with the tension of the action.

From this, you can probably tell that Quinn's talent for storytelling is evident throughout this novel, as he places these fictional events on the backdrop of history and weaves us through to a surprising conclusion. However, I did have a small problem with this book. Maybe it is just me, but I felt like the whole crime solving parts of this novel took a backseat to the characters. With their lives and problems at the forefront, there were times when I almost forgot about their direct and indirect involvement with this murderer and his stalking the two women who could identify him. I also found that the investigations by the authorities were practically non-existent. While this may be a reflection on the abilities of the police at the time, I would have thought that the forces would have been more forthcoming in trying to get this killer. Apparently, with only one detective assigned to the case, he hardly deserves any mention. Moreover, his few appearances make him sound disinterested in the case, even though Quinn adds one tidbit that makes him seem both highly intelligent and able enough to get the job done.

This isn't to say that I disliked this novel, but rather was somewhat disappointed in how this all panned out. On the other hand, it could be that I prefer a real detective or investigative drama to one where ordinary citizens are seemingly hapless pawns in the sinister goings on. Because of this, I have a feeling that most lovers of the crime/mystery genre will enjoy this book much more than I did. This is why I'll still recommend it but for me, it only gets three (and maybe a half) out of five stars. 

"Curtain Call" by Anthony Quinn, published by Random House UK, Vintage Publishing, released January 8, 2015 is available on Kindle from Amazon, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook from iTunes, in hardcover from The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris. I would like to thank the publishers for giving me an advance reader's copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Fictional blogging for her life

Undiscovered Gyrl by Allison Burnett

Authors have always been told, "Write what you know," but as far as I can tell, this is a rule that Mr. Burnett has shunned totally. Had it resulted in an unsuccessful novel, would have been understandable, but amazingly, it doesn't. How a 50-something male author can get so much into the head of a teenage girl is totally beyond me. What's more, as far as I know, he has no teen-aged daughters of his own to draw upon either. Even if he did, I would certainly pray that he couldn't possibly have used that personal experience as a model for his protagonist – Katie – who is in such a mess, it is a wonder that she can even get out of bed in the morning. Instead, Burnett seems to have gotten a whole lot right here, and in his novel “Undiscovered Gyrl,” Katie is frighteningly realistic.

Written in the form of an on-line blog, we witness all that Katie has been experiencing since finishing High School and deciding to take off a year before going to university. From the beginning, Katie tells us that she’s using a pseudonym and changing many details of her posts so that her followers can’t discover where she lives or who she really is. While this seems like a wise move, we soon discover that this is one of Katie’s few good decisions. Apparently, Katie knows this, and yet cannot seem to help herself, even when her followers try to give her friendly or even belligerent advice. Katie is going full-tilt and one wonders if anything will stop her fall, or even if she wants to stop.

Having raised a daughter through her teens myself, I know how obstinate and difficult they can be. Moreover, since I somehow survived my own teenage years – including my parents’ divorce and my father’s subsequent remarriage – there is much about Katie with which I can (unfortunately) personally identify. Thankfully, my father wasn’t a drunk, but other than that, if there had been something out of place or unrealistic here, I think I would have noticed.

What makes this book so fascinating – and it truly is a page-turner – is that despite what Katie thinks about herself and her self-destructive behavior, we can see both the good and the bad in Katie. We know when she’s on the wrong path, we ache to try to steer her in a better direction, and we pray that she’ll do something to straighten her out. That doesn’t mean that Katie is a total train wreck. No, there are times when Katie seems to be totally in control, responsible and caring. However, one thing that Katie isn’t is predictable. This is what makes her such a special character. Her humanity is all there: it’s realistic, it’s funny, it’s sad and it’s everything and anything. Moreover, even if we’ve never met someone like Katie she is still someone with whom we can connect and empathize. That means that despite all her faults, we like her and care about her.

It struck me that this book has a bit of a moral to it, or if you will, a warning to both young people and their parents in today’s on-line world. While on the one hand, Katie has done a smart thing by hiding her real name and location, on the other hand, her successful secrecy ends up being detrimental to her. Furthermore, exacerbating Katie’s problems is the fact that there is no one in her life she trusts or with whom she can be truly honest. What’s more, neither of her parents nor their new partners seems to know her well enough to notice something is wrong.

This book ends with lots of unanswered questions, and perhaps it is better this way. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have felt the true poignancy of this story. We need this mystery so we are neither overly hopeful nor altogether hopeless, and I think Burnett knew this. In all, “Undiscovered Gyrl” is a story about innocence and its loss, about youth in the world today – their potential and the paths they take that steer them either towards reaching it, or away from it. Powerful, moving and at times even funny, this a novel rings very true – and I highly recommend it with a healthy four and a half stars out of five.


"Undiscovered Gyrl" by Allison Burnett published by Vintage, released August 11, 2009 is available on Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris and Better World Books, or from an IndieBound store near you. “Undiscovered Gyrl” inspired the motion picture (directed by the author), "Ask Me Anything," staring Britt Robertson, Christian Slater, Justin Long and Martin Sheen.) 

This is a revised version of my Curious Book Fans review, which also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Home for Ties that Bind

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler's 20th novel is all about the Whitshank family, starting with Abby and Red. They live in the home that Red's father built on Bouton Road in Baltimore. Here, they raised their four children. Well, actually, only three of them are theirs. They informally adopted Douglas, the boy they call Stem. Now they're all grown up. Stem, Amanda and Jeannie are married with children of their own. Denny was married as well and has a daughter, but no one is sure if the girl is biologically his, and he's not living with her mother anymore. However, there is more, and to understand this family fully, looking at them today isn't enough. For that, you need to go back, at least three generations.

As usual, Tyler builds her story around ordinary people, the types that have sigh-inducing flaws that both endear and annoy. Moreover, while their words and deeds make us nod or shake our heads, we also see some of ourselves in these characters, or at least someone we know, often quite well. This makes Tyler's stories even more intriguing and personal for her readers. For me, one of the characters in this book struck me as coming very close to describing my own brother. Mind you, some people might feel uncomfortable with such intimate looks into our human frailties, but for many others, that's just what makes them so compelling.

Equally as important, Tyler's writing style is deceptively simple, bordering on the poetic while still ultimately accessible. The perfect example in this story is how Abby Whitshank describes the day she fell in love with Red. She says, "It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon." Think about that for a moment, if Tyler had written that without the phrase "yellow-and-green," it would have been just boring. I marveled at her choice of colors that make us feel the warmth and light of summer, as it touches the fresh grass and shady trees. In this way, and by stringing together these three words, we get much so more than the words themselves, and that is Tyler's genius. Furthermore, by using words so concisely to evoke so much, Tyler's books never have bloated descriptions, keeping us cleverly enthralled, from start to finish.

However, what really impressed me about this novel was how Tyler used the house as a metaphor for this family and their various stories, and was what I believe is the underlying theme of this novel. As Tyler deconstructs the Whitshank family, so too does she deconstruct this house. Each little situation that causes the family distress is a mirror of the signs of decay that need attention and fixing in the building. Moreover, as we go back in time to understand the family, we also go back in time to understand their connection to this house. Tyler's ability to combine carefully chosen characters, an open writing style and practically universally relatable themes makes her work so popular and - if you think about it - timeless. No wonder everyone is celebrating her 50-year career (such as in this Daily Mail article), to which I can only add my wholehearted recommendation of this novel with a full five stars out of five.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that when Anne Tyler started writing this book, she told an interviewer for the BBC that the idea of completing another novel didn't appeal to her. That was why she decided to write the book backwards - starting from the present Whitshanks and then going back one generation at a time. In this way, she believed she could go on writing the book practically forever, and never again go through the hassle of editing, revising, publishing, promoting and hoping people will like it (as if we wouldn't)! Fortunately, she realized she was only interested in three generations, and that means her readers will be pleased to see this, her 20th novel, released later this month. We can only hope that if this book is a success, it might egg her on to write one more novel (at the very least).

"A Spool of Blue Thread" by Anne Tyler, published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, release date February 10, 2015, is available to order on Kindle from Amazon, Nook from

Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook from iTunes, in hardcover or paperback from The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for inviting me to read an advance copy of this book for Book Browse via NetGalley. This review also appears on my Times of Israel blog.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

A Great Book for Your House

Great House by Nicole Krauss

This novel is all about a desk, or rather about all the various people who have possessed this particular, very special and imposing piece of furniture. In fact, it practically had a life of its own. From the library of a Jew in Hungary during the Nazi occupation or in the hands of a Chilean poet caught up in Pinochet's reign of terror. From the bright living room of a writer in New York, or in a dark London attic of a woman with an even darker secret, or closed up in Jerusalem as a relic of the past. In all its incarnations, this novel investigates the effect this desk has on each of the people who have used it or lived with it, through a mosaic of stories.

However, to say that this book is only about a desk and its owners is only reducing this novel to its lowest common denominator. What's more, to call any of these people "owners" of this desk is probably a gross inaccuracy. This desk is an imposing one, with many strangely sized and irregular drawers, and in fact, could be a metaphor for the lives that these people live. Some people leave most of these drawers empty, others fill every drawer with mementos and knickknacks, others only use a few of the drawers and only for the most mundane of office equipment. One person even locks one of the drawers with a heavy secret, which they later don't even remember is there. In this way, although the desk is the same object for all these people, it is still different things to each of them. Moreover, it becomes a symbol of the particular person using it and thereby becomes a legacy to those who inherit it from them. In this, Krauss is actually telling us something far deeper than simply an historical account of a piece of furniture, but rather is a study of how people deal with the difficulties of life, and how our actions pass on to others.

What made this book so intriguing was that this is a very complicated story to tell, as well as an ambitious one, as this story spans easily 80 years. But Nicole Krauss never seems to worry about that and from the outset, tackles each story and stage of the journey as if it was the only one she was telling. As each tale unwinds, bit by bit, we feel like we've been immersed in the lives of these people and how the desk became part of their lives - or how it left it. What's even more fascinating is how these people were still drawn to this desk even after it had been given over or lost to another owner. And although Krauss never gives us chapter headings, there is never any confusion regarding where we are and who we are with. This is certainly a testament to Krauss' skill as a writer, and a prime example of literary fiction at its best.

In fact, the language Krauss uses here is deceptively simple and easy, while still being effectively rich with its undertones. For instance, the book opens with a woman who is apparently trying to tell a courtroom about how she got this desk and how it was taken from her. It doesn't matter that we only hear this woman and no one else in the court; that is simply the voice Krauss has chosen to use for her. Other characters get different voices and points of view. Some speak directly to the reader, others speak only to other characters, and still others are observed and described in third person. It is because of this mixture of points of view combined with the different places and eras that it spans, that many reviewers of this book have called it a collection of short stories. While this isn't totally inaccurate, these different tales are far more connected than that classification would infer. That would mean: individual stories, each using separate sets of characters, with each one told as a whole piece of writing from beginning to end before moving onto the next one. While Krauss does do this here in several instances, we also revisit some sets of characters more than once. One of the best things about this book is how it uses this revisiting of characters, which unfortunately, is something I can't fully reveal here, as it might ruin the ending.

However, what I can reveal is that this book is extremely special and engrossing from start to finish. We feel these characters are totally real, almost touchable and that Krauss has special affection for each and every one of them. This comes over to the reader so perfectly that it becomes infectious and once you start reading, you'll probably not want to put it down. Moreover, although the subject matter isn't always the most pleasant, even when humorous things happen, this is a very smooth read. Because of this, I cannot recommend this book more highly than to give it five stars out of five. 

"Great House" by Nicole Krauss, released in 2010 is available on Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook or audiobook from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), or from an IndieBound store near you.
This is a slightly revised version of my review on Curious Book Fans, which also appears on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady and was previously on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

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